CCSS: Primary Sources for Secondary Social Studies

The study of history is very similar to other disciplines covered by the new Common Core Standards (CCSS). The emphasis is on more complex and demanding reading materials, especially the decoding of full-text primary documents. Students are encouraged to learn to read in the way professional historians read using context and resources that allow for exploration based on self-generated inquiry questions. The study of history, when it is enhanced by access to original documents, digitized for student manipulation, means that the past is not just dates and isolated events from the textbook.


The availability of original documents through the Internet continues to increase, meaning greater access for students. School librarians face increased demands to broaden their definition of collection development so that they can include not only more complex, contemporary historical nonfiction and biographical books, but also original documents, photographs, and illustrations of artifacts online.

Electronic access, including both public domain and subscription options, make collection development a professional role that goes beyond simple acquisition of only books and periodicals that meet standard criteria for school library collections. Grappling with the historical issues of our democracy through digitized raw data can lead to interesting intellectual freedom challenges (Friese 2008).


Selected examples from the crosswalk curriculum map developed by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) illustrates the close fit between the Common Core secondary level standards in history and AASL’s Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. See Figure 1.

Fig. 1. Selected examples from the AASL Crosswalk
*Common Core Standards**AASL Standards
CC11-12WH/SS/S/TS2. Write informative/explanatory texts, including the narration of historical events, scientific procedures/ experiments, or technical processes.2.2.4. Demonstrate personal productivity by completing products to express learning.
3.3.4. Create products that apply to authentic, real-world contexts.
CC11-12WH/SS/S/TS2b. Develop the topic thoroughly by selecting the most significant and relevant facts, extended definitions, concrete details, quotations, or other information and examples appropriate to the audience’s knowledge of the topic.1.1.5. Evaluate information found in selected sources on the basis of accuracy, validity, and appropriateness to needs, importance, and social and cultural context.
1.1.7. Make sense of information gathered from diverse sources by identifying misconceptions, main and supporting ideas, conflicting information, and point of view or bias.
CC11-12WH/SS/S/TS7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self- generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.1.4.1. Monitor own information seeking processes for effectiveness and progress, and adapt as necessary.
2.1.1. Continue an inquiry-based research process by applying critical thinking skills (analysis, synthesis, evaluation, organization) to information and knowledge in order to construct new understandings, draw conclusions, and create new knowledge.
CC9-10WH/SS/S/TS2f. Provide a concluding statement or section that follows from and supports the information or explanation presented (e.g., articulating implications or the significance of the topic).4.2.3. Maintain openness to new ideas by considering divergent opinions, changing opinions or conclusions when evidence supports the change, and seeking information about new ideas encountered through academic or personal experiences.
4.4.4. Interpret new information based on cultural and social context.
* American Association of School Librarians. Crosswalk of the Common Core Standards and the Standards for the 21st-Century Learner.
**American Association of School Librarians. Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. American Library Association, 2007. (Downloadable for free at:


Format does not necessarily determine that a source is primary. Recordings, films, and photos can all be secondary if they are a later interpretation of an event or a series of events. Secondary sources also include analyses of primary sources and other secondary sources. Tertiary sources are compilations over time; encyclopedia and even some textbooks are often regarded as third-level interpretations. Yale University Primary Sources Collection defines “primary source” as follows:

Primary sources provide first-hand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. They are characterized by their content, regardless of their format. They are created by witnesses or recorders who experienced the events or conditions being documented. Often these sources are created at the time when the events or conditions are occurring, but primary sources can also include autobiographies, memoirs, and oral histories recorded later. Primary sources are characterized by their content, regardless of whether they are available in original format, in microfilm/microfiche, or digital format, or in published format (2008).

Specifically, the Common Core reading standards for literacy in history and social studies in grades six through eight focus on ideas, structure, and knowledge integrated from primary sources. Selected examples include:

  • Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.
  • Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.
  • Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
  • Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
  • Distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.
  • Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.
  • Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources. (Common Core State Standards Initiative, English Language Arts Standards, History/Social Studies, Grades 6-8).

Are these information literacy skills? Yes. Cleary important here is that these standards place the teacher and student in the role of historian or information scientist (Callison 2005 a). Critical evaluation of evidence is the key portion of the information search process and inquiry learning, not just the exercise of narrowing a topic or finding enough information to complete the assignment. The expectation is that critical review of artifacts can result in new insights for the student.

Making critical judgments on the quality and relevance of information found in documents, not simply the process of writing a descriptive narrative can mean teacher guidance is needed each time students engage in examining information. The expectation is that secondary school students determine the value of accessed information from various source levels, determine the quality of that information within its context and the context of the problem being researched (Callison 2005 b). It means conflicting judgments will arise based on the analysis of the information in order to determine the extent of its assimilation to the student’s prior knowledge (Kuhlthau 2004).

It means true historical information inquiry processes can be difficult, frustrating, and, at times, impossible. This realization may be one of the most important information literacy lessons.


Key challenges to the implementation of using primary sources include access to documents, variance in the interpretation of primary sources as true original artifacts, and the degree of teacher understanding of the potential for new learning experiences. Early experimentation with digital primary resource collections raised obvious obstacles.

Adam M. Friedman at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, found that world history teachers needed extensive training and practice in the use of technology before accepting digital primary materials as more than simple additions to lessons (2006). Teachers placed little value in primary documents if the means for access were not clear and if the document contents did not match previously established learning objectives. Teaching strategies changed very little even when the depth of online collections was illustrated.

As the head librarian at the University of Illinois Laboratory High School, Frances Jacobson Harris has frequently taken a leading role the in the development and implementation of new instructional methods engaging untested resources (2002). She reported the results of an early use of digitized primary resources from the Great Depression by middle school students.

While she found that, with instruction, teachers and students were able to navigate the online archive and enjoyed creative writing options assigned for the lesson, the students tended to view the artifacts from the vantage point of their personal experiences and contemporary time frame. A great deal more modeling or coaching was needed to help students read and synthesize the documents within their historical context.

The Common Core curriculum calls for more critical analysis of documents than the creative writing experiences these students favored in this early study. The authors of the Common Core, however, favor informative, argumentative writing over personal narratives.

More recent studies have shown signs of greater acceptance and use of digitized primary sources as the collections have grown, become better organized with associated lesson plans, and teachers have matured in technological applications. Student application of critical analysis has also moved to the frontline.

Susan De La Paz from the University of Maryland and her colleagues have recently demonstrated how digital evidence serves to help create historical, argumentative discourse for adolescents (2012). Better writers used strategies based on facts and evidence from documents. Better writers also demonstrated the capacity to contextualize and corroborate evidence in their arguments.


Sam Wineburg’s award-winning publication, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, chronicles his series of field research projects in which he documents the limited visions students and teachers hold for the personalities and events found in American History, stereotypes, and lack of enthusiasm for meaningful storytelling (2001). Classroom discussions seldom generated useful argumentation on key issues. History became stagnate in the hands of teachers limited to textbook content. Challenging politically correct and often simplistic conclusions found in most history curriculum requires passion and open debate. Over a decade ago, Wineburg concluded:

Discussions in such [interactive] classrooms will inevitably boil over into contentious issues of judgment, conflict, and tension that characterize a free society. This is what Dewey meant when he wrote that schools are not training grounds for democracy but the places where democracy is enacted. Either the classroom becomes a site where we learn to talk to one another, or we will suffer the enduring consequences of never having learned to do so (2001, 230).

Wineburg is now Director of the Stanford University History Education Group. In cooperation with the George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, critical methods that model how historians think and demonstrate why history matters have emerged. Inquiry questioning into the meaning of primary sources are driven by the following techniques summarized on the website Why Historical Thinking Matters:

  • Sourcing – Considering a document’s author and its creation.
  • Contextualizing – Situating the document and its events in place and time.
  • Close Reading – Reading carefully to consider what a source says and the language used to say it.
  • Corroborating – Checking important details across multiple sources to determine points of agreement and disagreement ((


While the strategies to help students and teachers read like historians are becoming refined with practice, so, too, have the online collections of primary sources greatly improved in depth, organization, and curricular relevance. Some of the websites recommended by Thomas Daccord in his book, The Best of History Web Sites, are as follows:

  • History Matters. From the George Mason University Center mentioned above, history lessons and syllabi for primary sources are abundant.
  • Digital History: Resource Guides. The site’s Ask the HyperHistorian feature allows users to pose questions to a professional historian. High quality resources are managed through the University of Houston.
  • The History Lab. Free access is granted to all K-12 teachers. Bernie Dodge of WebQuest fame is a leading advisor for this site.
  • The Library of Congress. This is the ultimate treasure of resources, many of which are organized to meet the Common Core curriculum. Viewers should examine the opportunities through the LC Teaching with Primary Sources Program and resources linked from the Teaching with Primary Sources Journal. Gail Petri, Education Resource Specialist, provides a regular topical update on primary resources in “The LOC Connection” published in the online periodical The School Librarian’s Workshop.
  • National Archives and Records Administration. The Digital Classroom includes the growing section on Teaching with Documents. The Weighting the Evidence tools help students apply critical skills. This is promoted by the National Council for the Social Studies.
  • Internet History Sourcebooks. A collection of public domain resources, the site is managed through Fordham University.
  • American Rhetoric. This site is rich in multimedia presentations broadly structured for debate of today’s political issues as well as those from the past.
  • Best of History Websites. This portal created by EdTech Teacher Inc. updates Daccord’s collection and provides over 1,200 valuable links, many coordinated to meet the expectations found in the Common Core (Daccord 2007).
Further Reading

Common Core State Standards Initiative, English Language Arts Standards, History/Social Studies, Grades 6-8. (accessed July 14, 2013).; Common Core State Standards Initiative. (accessed July 1, 2013).; Why Historical Thinking Matters. A Project of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University, and the School of Education at Stanford University. ( (accessed July 13, 2013).; Yale University Primary Sources Collection. 2008. (accessed July 14, 2013).; American Association of School Librarians. Crosswalk of the Common Core Standards and the Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. (accessed July 19, 2013).; American Association of School Librarians. Standards for the 21st-Century Learner. American Library Association, 2007. (Downloadable for free at:; Callison, Daniel. "The Student Information Scientist, Part I." School Library Monthly 22, no. 2 (October 2005a): 39-44.; Callison, Daniel. "The Student Information Scientist, Part II." School Library Monthly 22, no. 3 (November 2005b): 37-41.; Daccord, Thomas. The Best of History Web Sites. Neal-Schuman, 2007.; De La Paz, Susan, et al. "Adolescents' Disciplinary Use of Evidence, Argumentative Strategies, and Organizational Structure in Writing about Historical Controversies." Written Communication 29, no. 4 (October 2012): 412-454.; Friedman, Adam M. "World History Teachers' Use of Digital Primary Sources: The Effect of Training." Theory and Research in Social Education 34, no. 1 (2006): 124-141.; Friese, Elizabeth E. G. "Inquiry Learning: Is Your Selection Policy Ready?" Library Media Connection 37, no. 3 (November/December 2008): 14-16.; Harris, Frances Jacobson. "There Was a Great Collision in the Stock Market: Middle School Students, Online Primary Sources, and Historical Sense Making." School Library Media Research 5 (2002). (accessed July 14, 2013); Kuhlthau, Carol Collier. Seeking Meaning. Libraries Unlimited, 2004.; Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Temple University Press, 2001.

About the Author

Daniel Callison, Ed.D., is professor emeritus in school media and instructional systems technology, and dean emeritus in online adult education and distance continuing studies at Indiana University, Bloomington. He was previously a history teacher, manager of a national demonstration library media center at Topeka High School, and assistant debate coach. Callison was founding editor of the first online referred research journal in school media, School Library [Media] Research, and his published works include The Blue Book on Information Age Inquiry, Instruction and Literacy (with Leslie Preddy) and Graphic Inquiry (with Annette Lamb).

MLA Citation Callison, Daniel. "CCSS: Primary Sources for Secondary Social Studies." School Library Monthly, 30, no. 2, November 2013. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 1967010

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